Group bike ride to Watts Towers uses USC Annenberg innovation in mapping

By Laura Nelson
Student Writer

Exploratory bicycle rides into South Los Angeles with CicLAvia have joined forces with a research project at USC Annenberg to use everyday cell phones for mapping.

The effort is bringing together a diverse group of partner organizations around the city with a focus on bicycle and social change advocacy, including T.R.U.S.T. South LA, C.I.C.L.E., Bikerowave, the East Side Riders Bike Club and CicLAvia.

The USC Annenberg project, called ParTour, was the basis for a real-time map created by the ride’s 60 or so cyclists, who snapped cell phone photos and uploaded them via text message as they rode from Augustus Hawkins Natural Park to the iconic Watts Towers.

ParTour is a joint effort of USC Annenberg’s new Mobile Lab -- led by communication professor François Bar -- and the Metamorphosis Project, which studies changing urban communities under professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach. It is supported in part by the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab.

ParTour uses a methodology called “situated engagement”, which invites everyday people to connect to their neighborhood surroundings, use their own technology, and envision possible futures. By creating a neighborhood map with these rides, ParTour fosters civic conversations with participants who contribute a collage of photos, drawings and comments about what makes their neighborhood special, and how it can grow.


The underlying technology builds on tools previously deployed through Mobile Voices, which allow anyone with a camera phone to send photos via text message to a computer that places the photos on a map, based on either GPS data or location information entered by hand.

Bar and the rest of the team asked cyclists to take photos of anything they found interesting, which ranged from dolphin statues to scenes of the parade of bikes. The map came together in real time on Bar’s iPad, which he mounted on his handlebars during the ride for other participants to watch.

“It’s interesting to see how people behave when documenting their surroundings becomes a mission,” Bar said. “They start seeing things differently – store signs, shops, homes – that they’ve passed many times before, but just weren’t looking.”

The atmosphere of the ride was festive and excited, Bar said. Cyclists of all ages came from all over the city, from Silver Lake to Long Beach and West Los Angeles, to join South L.A. and Watts bike riders. One brought a boombox installed to the back of his bicycle. Some local residents watching from porches grabbed their bikes and joined in as the colorful mass of bicyclists went by.

“A lot of people were surprised that it was so easy and so much fun to ride in South L.A., especially for those who had not been there,” Bar said. “For those who do live in the neighborhood, it was a chance to see how biking gives a different way to engage with your city.”

Many of the people on the ride had heard of the Watts Towers, but had never been, doctoral student George Villanueva said. Even the man who gave the history of the Towers reportedly had lived in South L.A. for 40 years before visiting just a few years prior, during a ride with the East Side Riders.

“It's really great to get people outside of their cars and exploring on foot, or in other forms of transportation slower than cars,” Villanueva said. “You get out there and realize that a physical place has really cool treasures – that L.A. does have history and L.A. does have culture.”

Tafarai Bayne, the community affairs manager with T.R.U.S.T. South LA, worked with Annenberg to highlight the growing bike culture in South Los Angeles. 

"We really valued the opportunity to work with the school on a project like this," Bayne said. "We hope the future rides and tools we're planning to develop will help promote more opportunities to learn about culture and communication in South Los Angeles."

Moving forward, the team hopes to continue refining and distributing the maps they’ve created, and continue to engage the community. The CicLAvia maps will be available in print and online, following the Mobile Voices model. In that project, after stories were published online, the team printed them in a newspaper that could be distributed in labor centers and on street corners for those who don’t have Internet access.

Photos and videos from the event